This is the last in a four-part series where I hate on Big Bird. Not really, but see Part 1 here if you’re just now joining us. Sesame Street has made its way to Afghanistan, it’s called Bagch-e-SimSim, and it’s the perfect example to illustrate at a micro level what’s wrong with the reconstruction and development effort as a whole. The following is the last of four reasons explaining how even Grover gets it wrong here.
Reason #4: This is not an Afghan solution.
It’s more of a hyphenated Afghan solution. As in Afghan-American. More on that later.
Bringing Sesame Street to Afghanistan can be tough: trying to put a Western TV program on the air is going to present some challenges. Color my observations obvious. Some of the challenges the show ran into were objections from the Sesame Workshop, which distributes Sesame Street.
“We had some amazing footage of children flying kites on rooftops,” Farzana said. “This happens all over Afghanistan. But Sesame Street said we could not use it because it was against their safety rules.”
Sesame Street sets great store by teaching children how to protect themselves, and did not want young Afghans encouraged to take up such a dangerous activity.
The compromise: Farzana’s team added a graphic fence to the film.
Thereby rendering the footage completely unrecognizable to an Afghan kid. There were other objections as well.
One segment recorded in Afghanistan involving a family car ride had to be dropped because, as with nearly all local motorists, no one was wearing a seatbelt.
Which isn’t terribly surprising to anyone who’s been in Afghanistan for more than five minutes. Seatbelts are about as plentiful as bacon kebabs, and Afghans, if they know you well enough, will laugh at you when they see you putting one on. It’s not a good thing – this kind of thing leads to some pretty horrific traffic fatality numbers here, but somehow seatbelt safety in a country fairly riddled with the IED threat might get bumped way down on their list of priorities. There were some other issues and cultural differences that also had to be addressed in order to present an Afghan-friendly Sesame Street.
“We tested a scene where Ernie is barking like a dog and getting Bert to copy him, but we found that parents were dead set against it,” says Tania Farzana the Afghan-American executive producer of the show. “A dog is considered to be unclean, so the parents didn’t understand it.”
“Oscar the Grouch I had to minimise because his passion for trash did not translate well culturally here,” said the show’s Afghan-American producer, Tania Farzana.
As for The Count, she added that his fangs and fondness for bats would have proved problematic in a conservative, Islamic society like Afghanistan.
She also had to contend with cultural taboos like dancing.
And unlike the US version of Sesame Street, dancing was not encouraged on the Afghan version.
Such activity in front of the opposite sex is seen as overtly sexual in Afghanistan, so Afghan children watching the show are encouraged to exercise to music instead of dancing.
“That way I don’t get reprimanded by the parents because it’s exercise and who can disagree with that?” Farzana said.
Since, apparently, Afghan parents are going to be too dumb to see that the “exercising” being encouraged looks a whole lot like dancing. Beyond these kinds of creative differences, she also had to deal with trying push things a little too far for the comfort of either the executives in the United States or her colleagues in Afghanistan.
More problematic is the season’s final show, in which Farzana wants to show a father taking his 6-year-old daughter to Friday prayer. But Sesame Street in New York, with its resolutely secular message, balked.
“I told them this is not about religion,” she said. “It is about community. In Afghanistan, social life revolves around the mosque; you go there to meet old friends and make new ones; you go to feel that you are never alone.”
She got a tentative go-ahead from New York, but then ran into trouble on the Afghan side.
“So many people did not want me to show a father taking his daughter to the mosque. ‘She’s a girl!’ they said. But I answered, ‘she’s a child!’”
The issue is still not resolved, but Farzana, a woman of prodigious energy and enthusiasm, vows that the segment will be shown.
“I will have a film on Friday prayer,” she said firmly.
This is where Ms. Farzan lost me. No matter how much we want to spin the mosque as a “community center,” it is primarily a place of worship. Which, as an Afghan native obviously well-versed in the nuances of interacting with a rural, poorly educated population, Ms. Farzan would know quite well. Unless she’s not really any of those things.
In first reading through the different articles for this piece, at first I was fairly impressed that an Afghan woman (in Kabul or anywhere) would be bold enough to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable in this, her native country. It’s not unprecedented, and some truly brave women are forging genuinely new paths for future Afghan women to follow (provided the wheels don’t come completely off circa 2014).
Then I read further: let me introduce you to my current nominee for Team America’s All Stars (previous nominee was Senator Lieberman and an honorary nominee would be the cultural advisor for Regional Command Southwest): Tanya Farzan. She regales us with her glorious childhood in Kabul:
“I was the luckiest child in the world,” said Farzana, who was born in Kabul in the 1970s, before leaving for the United States at the age of nine. “There was so much comfort and warmth, a sense of security. Children now cannot even imagine a Kabul like that.”
Coming back after close to 30 years was a shock. “The first three months broke my heart,” she confessed. “Nothing was the way I remembered it.”
I get that it’s Kabul, and it certainly doesn’t look like it did 30 years ago, but neither does my old neighborhood. Mainly because of all the gangs. And the pawn shops. But enough about me.
Farzana recalls a Kabul where her mother rode a bike to university, where women were free to do what they liked.
“My mother never even wore one of these,” she said, flicking at the white headscarf that covered her dark hair.
Yes, Ms. Farzan and the wearers of headscarves certainly suffer in a country where “opium brides” are still far too common. The horrors of silk, indeed.
Having spent her formative years far from Afghanistan, even Kabul, Ms. Farzan got here as fast she could, arriving 30 years later on her nearly-sacred mission:
“I am hoping we can give them the right to use their imaginations,” she said. “This instills empathy, the ability to identify with others.”
This is phenomenal…childrens’ rights. Wait…what? I mean, yeah, it’s a crapshoot here whether or not this country’s going turn out all right, but it’s not exactly the Orwellian nightmare she’s portraying. But wait, there’s more. Much more.
“I was struggling trying to get kids to smile for the clips I was making,” Farzan says. “So this show, actually, there are a couple of scenes specifically trying to get kids to know, to recognize these kinds of emotions, and also the fact that it’s OK to express those emotions, you know? It’s all right to…distinguish between ‘happy,’ ‘sad,’ ‘angry,’ and all the different things that here [are] not really encouraged.”
It’s not at all possible the reason they weren’t smiling was because she was freaking the kids out. No… it’s because of how Afghanistan…well…let her explain it.
She suggests that Afghanistan can feel like “you’re supposed to subdue yourself at all times, and usually anger is the one that’s expressed so easily and comfortably.”
“So I’m pretty excited about getting the young generation of kids to become familiar with the different kinds of emotions,” Farzan says.
I don’t know where Afghan kids would be unless Ms. Farzan was here to import these different emotions. Granted, there are some traumatized kids in this country. You can’t live in a place that’s torn apart by war for over 30 years and not get beaten down by it. But I’m not sure what automatons she’s hanging out with that have her convinced that she’s going to be the Good Fairy of all Things Emotional. As far as being subdued at all times, apparently Ms. Farzan isn’t familiar with things like The Ministry, an Afghan television program that many in the Western media described as a take on The Office. Or the comedic stylings of this Afghan in Khowst. Or with actual Afghan kids, who have this really weird tendency to act like… kids.
I know I’ve spent some time laughing with Afghan colleagues, and most of the time it wasn’t even at gunpoint. Although I’ve found you get a much better reaction to your jokes if your audience is threatened with violence. Seriously: learning “Laugh, or I’ll shoot,” in several languages has worked wonders for my budding comedic career.
Besides being nearly completely disconnected from the fact that Afghans have emotions, just like real humans, Ms. Farzan’s still not done dishing out the cultural insight. Not by a long shot.
Farzan is optimistic that the show will find success the old-fashioned way: word of mouth.
“In [even] the most rural areas, there’s always this big satellite dish. Now chances are that in that little town there’s one extreme, fundamentalist side that might not put his children to watch [the show]. But then there’s two families that do. And then the word of mouth hits,” Farzan says. “Word of mouth is the most powerful thing in Afghanistan, because that causes waves more than anything else.”
She envisages a scenario in which just a small number of families might initially watch but quickly be joined by others.
“Let’s say a family — even if it’s just the two families that see it and their kids play the next day — those two kids that watched it, they’ll tell that kid what was there [on television],” Farzan says. “So I know it’s not possible to reach everyone 100 percent of the time — just like it is in the [United] States or England. You can’t reach everyone all of the time. But at the same time, there’s [such] a power behind this show that I can say with all certainty that if one kid in the whole block sees it, the other kids will hear about it.”
I’m not sure which Afghanistan Ms. Farzan is in, but having been in some those “most rural areas,” I haven’t seen too many examples of that there “big satellite dish.” These are many areas where if there is any electricity it’s going to some lights. Or to charge their cell phones. Oddest thing to see a guy on a donkey cart trucking down a rural road with his cellphone out.
As for the “peer pressure,” she grossly underestimates the power of Western-style democracy and peer pressure in getting those “extreme, fundamentalist” types to let something like Western TV programs into their home. Assuming there’s a TV there at all. And there’s the issue of airing a Western style program on a channel like TOLO, which isn’t known for embracing conservative ways.
“Earlier, there was a TV series for Afghan youth, a very Western-type of a program,” the teacher tells Radio Free Afghanistan, “and it exposed kids to negative things. Now they [the West] want to influence the minds of our children.”
Others question whether the show will reach its target audience — most importantly, girls. Just 12 percent of women over 15 are literate, largely a legacy of the Taliban regime’s strict policies, and the education of girls continues to be controversial for religious and societal reasons in much of the country.
But Tolo TV is known for airing racier shows, such as Turkish and Indian soap operas, that are often criticized by the country’s religious establishment. Considering that religious families are more likely to prevent their daughters from attending school, the question arises whether they are willing to tune in.
Ms. Farzan is doing what I see a great many well-meaning aid and development workers doing: assuming some sort of non-human behavior that must, by all means, be addressed through the auspices of the “Whites in Shining Armor” vehicle, or they will never truly be able to get anything done.
It’s this kind of “mile wide, inch deep” sweeping generalization and the application of the “magic bullet” approach to work in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) that ensures that whatever is being done will fail. Probably miserably. The RAND corporation actually addressed this kind of ex-pat involvement in some of its “lessons learned” from its own experiences in Afghanistan with the DVD series.
First, with regard to her theory that the children just need to be taught how to feel again:
Afghan classrooms were traditional, with strong authority granted to teachers and other adults. However, this did not mean that the behavior of the children was repressed.
Having spent some time as an educator, I too had to suffer through the educational psychology classes where we learned to develop “cooperative learning activities.” That works just fine, so long as you’re not actually trying to “learn” anything. Children do best in an environment where there are rules and those rules are enforced. It’s called structure. Weird, I know.
As to her groundbreaking “ex-pat” approach, this is what RAND learned:
Expatriates (who had assisted in developing the project) did not prove to be good predictors of in-country attitudes. Direct involvement of the target population is preferred.
I’m the first to argue that one needs the “big brains” that do nothing but think about things. But you also desperately need individuals who’ve spent time on the ground, developing the product and working with the target audience in order to determine how effective it may be.
So, I hate on Big Bird. Not really, just on the way he’s being introduced in this country.
But so much of what’s gone wrong in this country is tied to these things: a lack of infrastructure to support projects lead to a lack of sustainability. Too much money is spent on things that make for a great photo op rather than being actually effective. Far too many “well meaning” ex pats with no concept of what might actually work here keep hammering Western pegs into Eastern holes, and it all ends…poorly.
This last one is the most frustrating, because the money always goes to the groups with the shiniest presentations, the most people with letters after their last name, with little or no consideration for whether or not they actually know anything about the country they’re trying to “help.” It is my sincere hope that the children of Afghanistan someday will get to experience Bagch-e-SimSim. But not now. Not like this.